Corey Accardo, NOAA/NMFS/AFSC/NMML
This is what 35,000 walruses look like when they do not have sea ice to rest on in the open water.

Native Alaska Village of Point Lay Hailed for Stewardship of 35,000 Walruses

Theresa Braine
10/3/14

With 35,000 walruses camped out on the edge of town, the 250-population Native village of Point Lay, Alaska has been thrust onto the world stage.

And, true to their custom, the residents have stepped up—not to bask in their potential 15 minutes of fame, but to embrace their traditional role as environmental stewards.

“These locals, these people, without a lot of funding or anything, have taken on this stewardship and protection of the haulout,” said Joel Garlich-Miller, a walrus specialist for the Marine Mammals Management department of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a telephone interview with Indian Country Today Media Network. “They’re front-line conservationists.”

The walruses began arriving in mid-September, as they had been for the past few years. You can hear them from the village, residents said in a 2012 community workshop held with Garlich-Miller, community elders and an array of scientists. It is common for walruses to “haul out,” as it’s called, and take a break from feeding in the open sea, usually by pulling themselves onto ice floes. But with the summer ice extent dwindling drastically in the Arctic, a growing number have had to settle for land.

RELATED: Video: Watch Thousands of Walruses Forced Onto Alaskan Shores by Climate Change

This has been happening off and on for years, but of late it has become much more pronounced. On September 30, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducted their annual flyover to observe Alaska’s marine wildlife from the air. Catching sight of the mass of walruses clustered onto a sliver of northwestern Alaska coast, they snapped some spectacular photos and posted them on the web, noting that a lack of sea ice had forced walruses onto land.

With all the attention being paid to climate change over the past couple of weeks, between the People’s Climate March of September 21 and the United Nations Climate Summit two days later, the world’s attention was riveted. The sea ice had reached its lowest extent for the year a couple of weeks earlier, on September 17, the sixth-lowest minimum on record, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

"The massive concentration of walruses onshore—when they should be scattered broadly in ice-covered waters—is just one example of the impacts of climate change on the distribution of marine species in the Arctic,” said Margaret Williams, managing director of the WWF’s Arctic program, in a statement on September 18. “The sharp decline of Arctic sea ice over the last decade means major changes for wildlife and communities alike. Today’s news about the sea ice minimum is yet another reminder of the urgent need to ratchet down global greenhouse gas emissions—the main human factor driving massive climate change.”

The walrus, Garlich-Miller explained, is “typically considered an ice-dependent species.” They are not suited to an open-water lifestyle and must periodically haul out to rest.

“Traditionally during the summer months, broken sea ice has persisted through the Chukchi Sea during the entire summer, and walruses have typically remained offshore,” he said in a conference call with reporters on October 1.

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